Willamette University professor, Dr. Amadou T. Fofana, discusses his book, The Films of Ousmane Sembene: Discourse, Politics, and Culture. on this month's Black Book Talk.
Ousmane Sembène was a Senegalese film director, producer, and writer, often called the "father of African film." He referred to himself as a modern-day griot, or one who is responsible for reconstructing and learning from the past in order to make sense of the present and prepare for the future. He expected African films, akin to morality tales, to spur critical thinking among viewers.
Sembène’s films offer non-Africans a rich window into another world. His films address male dominance, gerontocratic rule, polygamous marriage, socioeconomic disparity, and long-honored cultural practices such as female circumcision. He tempered his idealism with realism, urging Africans to embrace the inescapable forces of globalization while also preserving fundamentally African social values. Sembène’s films are culturally rich and intellectually thought provoking and although he sometimes sparked controversy, he represented African cultures in inspirational and often prophetic ways.
Although Sembène’s central aim was to reach African audiences and encourage a dialogue within Senegalese society, his films are also extraordinarily effective in introducing non-African audiences to many of the most intriguing cultural issues and social changes facing African people today. The films are not fast paced in the manner of many Hollywood films. Rather, they are deliberately unhurried and driven by the narrative. They show actual ways of life, social relations, and patterns of communication and consumption, and the joys and tribulations of West African people. For people who have never been to Africa, the films offer an accessible first gaze. For those who have visited or lived in an African culture, the films provide a way to explore African society and culture more profoundly.
Sembène was an independent filmmaker, solely and totally responsible for the content of his films, which were inspired by the realities of daily life. This focus on microcosmic social relations and day-to-day politics is so central to Sembène art, his films breed provocative commentary on social, historical, political, economic, linguistic, religious, and gender issues relevant to Senegalese society. Because of his concern with daily Senegalese life, Sembène targeted the common people whose voices are seldom or never heard. In fact, depicting the struggles and concerns of average Senegalese people was a central preoccupation of his films, as he himself has articulated.
The book interprets contributes new insights into Sembène’s interpretations of cultural practices and the meanings he ascribes to social behaviors. It examines how Sembène uses language, mise-en-scène, cinematography, and creative editing to evoke the emotions of his targeted audience. Several chapters in the volume also demonstrate how the many ironies and political economic tensions that are so characteristic of Sembène's work are best understood within the sociocultural context of each film’s production.
For those who wish to adopt this book for their courses, the author, Professor Amadou Fofana, has also provided a helpful list of discussion questions for each chapter in the book.